Fringe Box



Opinion: How Should Guildford Treat Travellers?

Published on: 22 Aug, 2013
Updated on: 22 Aug, 2013

by Martin Giles

The arrival of travellers on Bannisters Field last week undoubtedly stirred feelings in Guildford.

Travellers at Bannisters Field feature

A group of travellers parked their vehicles and trailers at Bannisters Farm on Thursday and Friday, August 15 and 16.

Many seemed angry that anything other than swift and forceful action to remove them immediately was taken. Numerous comments were written on a local councillor’s Facebook page.

For whatever reason, the travellers did not stay long. Whether persuaded by the animosity shown towards them, official action or simply their own intentions, they said from the outset that they would only stay a few days, they struck camp on Friday evening  and left.

So was this an example of people power expressed through social media or effective and prompt action by the council? Or was it simply an example of the travellers going where they want, when they want?

How should Guildford as a town treat these transient groups?

Councillor Julia McShane’s creditably took on the responsibility of keeping others informed and her Facebook page became a focus for an online debate.

FacebookOne comment stood out for me as a neat summary. David Phillips wrote: “Live and let live but we all have to follow the rules otherwise there is unfairness and that’s where people get cross.”

Most of us would agree with these sentiments. We are largely free in this country to live as we want to, but that does not excuse us from fulfilling obligations and abiding by rules.

The travellers certainly broke the rules when they pitched camp on Bannisters Field, but I expect they would ask: “Where are we meant to go?”

The responsibility for both providing suitable sites and enforcement action does largely and properly fall on the local council. But, as in so many matters, it does not have a completely free hand. The council especially, given its position of authority,  has to act within the law.

It does seem sensible that it acted quickly to provide facilities for the travellers to dispose of rubbish and go to the lavatory. It is in all our interests, regardless  of the rights and wrongs of the occupancy, that the site was protected from damage as much as possible.

Opinion Logo 2Many will breathe a sigh of relief that the site has not become a long term problem. But we should also reflect on how the various parties acted.

1. It was not correct for the travellers to pitch camp on Bannisters Field, but their offence was mitigated by lack of other provision.

2. The council acted correctly and promptly by providing facilities and serving the necessary legal papers.

3. Cllr McShane provided a good service using social media to keep residents informed.

4. In contrast, the council’s press statement (as requested by The Guildford Dragon NEWS on the same day the travellers arrived) was bland and uninformative. Such announcements do nothing to help communication and might even add to the frustration felt by some.

5. Many posted sensible, measured comments on social media which can be a powerful tool for expressing public opinion. Unfortunately, a minority continue to use such sites irresponsibly, posting, vitriolic and even racist comments, sometimes anonymously or with fictitious names, without any apparent care for their impact.

The rule of law and fair, humane treatment of minority groups are measures of civilised societies. It is always important that the law is enforced fairly and without undue delay if it is to be seen as effective and enjoy overall respect.

In this case, the incident did not lead to a long term crisis but a bigger problem remains in a borough that is 85% green belt: we have insufficient traveller sites. Something will have to give. Either green belt land will have to be given up or national policy on traveller sites provision needs to be changed.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, does not appear to be someone who enjoys the constraint of a tight belt but he does need to recognise the constraints the green belt imposes on boroughs like ours. He is sure to know that he cannot have his cake and eat it.

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